I SPEAK in Malayalam, but my paintings speak a universal language,” says Ratheesh T, perhaps for the fourth time since we began our conversation nearly two hours ago. He laughs as he says this, like he laughed all three times before, but there’s an unmistakable edge there, just barely slicing through the mirth. He isn’t being defensive, exactly, but he wants me — and through me, others — to know that he can’t and won’t be labelled as just a local artist.
It’s the week before his second solo exhibition (on till November 20) opens at Galerie Mirchandani and Steinruecke in Mumbai, and as Ratheesh takes me through the gallery, it becomes clear where his self-belief comes from. The artist, born in Kilimanoor village in Kerala and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, may paint the state’s lush landscape and her people on his canvas, but the stories he’s telling could be understood by anyone, regardless of their geographical location and cultural context. “There are certain experiences and emotions that cannot be articulated through words, but they can be expressed through art. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Ratheesh says. You see this, for example, in Kiss (clear pond), which depicts the artist and his young daughter by the pond outside his studio, lit up with the obvious love of a parent for his child.
Whether it’s a scene depicting a familiar sort of love or a montage of village life, what defines the Thiruvananthapuram-based artist’s work is a sense of drama. Each work looks like a moment of pause in a movie, such as I See You, which shows the moment when Ratheesh and his niece encountered a wild boar at night while out in Kilimanoor. “The way the beam of light from the torch lit up the boar, I knew that I had to paint it,” he says. It was as if he was looking at the whole scene from an outsider’s perspective, explains the 38-year-old.
It hasn’t been easy to develop this perspective. After his father died when Ratheesh was very young, the artist and his six siblings were brought to Thiruvananthapuram by his mother, as she sought a better livelihood for herself and a future for her children. Ratheesh himself has had some hard knocks, even doing manual labour to support himself so that he could get his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram. Over the years, he assiduously schooled himself into becoming an artistic and intellectual “insider”, he says, reading what he could lay his hands on and absorbing ideas.
“But after a point, I realised that the only truth is what I have seen and experienced, and the ideas that I had picked up from others, without truly knowing or understanding what they are, were discarded,” he says. In the exhibition, this stage of the artist’s development is depicted in the painting titled I Am (cleaning pond), in which we see Ratheesh’s nude figure grinning out at us, while behind him lies a heap of discarded clothes. Further in the background is the pond, outside his studio, in the process of being cleared of garbage and weeds.
If the “outsider’s perspective” allows Ratheesh to suffuse his works with the dramatic, it also allows for a certain detachment that is necessary when painting particularly politically-charged works. “I paint what I see, and if you see something more there then that’s you bringing your experience to it. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, because that is exactly how art should be experienced,” says Ratheesh. Still, as one looks at a work like Independence Day or Allotted Land, it’s not hard to guess where the artist’s sympathies lie, although he won’t go so far as to openly say it. Both paintings are set in Kilimanoor, and, in their own way, speak of the failure of electoral politics. In the former, we see what looks like an abandoned house with an outhouse, on the walls of which is scrawled political graffiti. The setting, like in most of Ratheesh’s work, is lush and green, and if you are not looking carefully, you’ll miss the grim shadow — a woman’s body hanging from a noose — at the bottom of the painting. Stuck into one of the trees opposite this shadow is a small plastic replica of the Tricolour, askew at the stem. In Allotted Land, we see a bustling village scene, with characters laughing, chatting and arguing. Here, however, the political notes sound more clearly: what looks like the Communist symbols of hammer and sickle are being carried off the canvas by three men, while, on the other end, stand two men in khaki shorts. Shells of houses — not completed owing to lack of funds — stand proudly bearing the letters PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana), while the public taps at the bottom of the canvas run dry. “This is simply the story of one village, where the people neither know, nor care about politics,” says Ratheesh, “But then, what I’m trying to show is even such a small, local story holds the key to understanding the larger picture of the world.”